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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Interpreting Lichtenstein: a few thoughts on labels

I know that we have already written you a review of the Tate Modern’s blockbuster Roy Lichtenstein retrospective but I myself have only just gotten around to visiting. I can therefore say confidently, yes it is indeed amazing. I love Lichtenstein as an artist; in fact I have a poster of ‘Drowning Girl’ hanging in my flat as we speak. As a retrospective Tate gives us even more of Lichtenstein than the few iconic images we already know. You get to explore his black and white period (wow), his sculpture (who knew?), his renditions of famous artworks (like Picasso but with dots!), his slightly unfortunate early abstract expressionist paintings (yikes) and even his last series of Chinese landscapes from the 1990s. You should go, its great.

But I am not here to talk about whether Lichtenstein is or isn’t an artistic genius, I want to talk about this exhibition’s labels. Seriously what is going on with them? I couldn’t help but laugh as we read aloud the near Saatchi-esque level of pretention. Shall I name but a few?

‘His restricted palette laid bare the reductive nature of commercial images. Do those jagged lines really depict a tyre tread?’ – Yes this do, this is a picture of a tyre. And although I am sure Lichtenstein was indeed interested in commercial imagery, I love the overdramatic use of the term ‘laid bare’ and the rhetoric question to follow it up.

‘Ever since Leonardo da Vinci called the true artist a ‘mirror of nature’, mirrors have symbolized paintings itself, and their depiction within paintings has been a sign of the artist’s mastery’.- Hold up, are we still in a pop art exhibition or what? You know I love Lichtenstein, but did we just compare him to Leonardo da Vinci? Or  does this curator just really love the whole concept of mirrors. If I paint a mirror am I a master artist? I think what I love best about this quote is that it starts ‘Ever since’. Always a good start. Ever since the dawn of time man has strived to encapsulate his emotions through the medium of ART.

‘Unlike many artists, Lichtenstein did not use live models for his depictions of the female body; instead he returned to his archive of comic clippings to select female characters as subjects- and then literally undressed them, by imagining their bare bodies under their clothes before painting them as nude.’- Just a few quick thoughts on this one then. First of all, I don’t think you can ‘literally’ imagine something. The use of the word ‘literally’ here seems bizarre. Secondly, this is an enormously long sentence for saying, ‘Lichtenstein based his later nudes not on live models but from female characters in comic strips.’ The high drama of this label can be best appreciated by reading it aloud in your best ‘come hither’ voice.

‘The female presence is ambiguous, with Benday dots that break the conventions of chiaroscuro by overlapping and eliminating the fleshy contours of her body to blur the distinction between figure and background’- Gaaahhhh this is why you art people drive me crazy! I know that this is a legitimate art criticism but the use of the words ‘ambiguous’ ‘chiaroscuro’ and ‘fleshy’ make me cringe.

I would then like to propose my own subversive art project. I will curate my own exhibition of… well it doesn’t really matter what it is, just through some random art in there. I will then proceed to fill the entire gallery with my ‘Since the down of time’ style labels. Expect to find the words ‘discourse’ ‘ambiguous’ ‘gender roles’ ‘compressed space’ ‘sensuality’ ‘subversive’ and ‘profound’ in overabundance. I am thinking something along the lines of :‘Here the artist breaks with convention by subverting commonly accepted notions of sensuality and gender roles by replacing them with a counter-cultural discourse which literally turns on it’s head our modern conceptions of space, place and time.’

At the end of the exhibition we will ask visitors whether they noticed anything a bit strange about the labels. Who wants to bet the general public would just accept it as normal art speak? C’mon, you know some art gallery somewhere loves this idea.

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